THE HYBRID SIGHTHOUND - The Lurcher by David Hancock
The Hybrid Sighthound: the Lurcher A number of the sighthound breeds can rightly claim an ancient origin and a long record as a distinct type. But every hunting dog was developed from varied sources, the hybrid was the foundation stock – with anatomical features being rooted in function rather than any desire for cosmetic appeal. Our Mastiff was once revered all over northern Europe as a hunting dog: the Englische Dogge. It was a powerful strong-headed active agile heavy hound, used to close with quarry and seize it for the accompanying hunters. The German Mastiff or Deutsche Dogge became the Great Dane but both came from huge functional boar-lurchers, a type perpetuated today in some bull-lurchers. Brindle mastiffs were used in the 19th century deer hunt in Scotland, used towards the end of the chase to pull down the quarry. In his Hunting and Hunting Reserves in Medieval Scotland, John Donald, 1979, John Gilbert writes of references to mastiffs in the Scottish Forest Laws – capable of attacking and pulling down deer; they wore spiked collars when they were used on wolves and boar, when they hunted to the horn. These dogs were nothing like the contemporary breed of Mastiff, but athletic muscular hunting dogs, showing tuck-up and signs of sighthound blood, very much in the mould of today’s bull-lurcher.
“The lurcher is supposed to have been originally a cross between the greyhound and the shepherd’s dog, recrossed with the terrier; hence the quickness of his scent, his speed, and intelligence. The habits of this dog lead him to concealment and cunning, and he is seldom found in the possession of honourable sportsmen. He is often employed by poachers in killing hares and rabbits in the obscurity of night…” Anecdotes of Dogs by Edward Jesse, Henry Bohn, 1858.
“With respect to the lurcher, it appears to us to be a mongrel breed between the rough greyhound and the shepherd’s dog. Bewick, who figures and describes it, says, that it is less and shorter than the greyhound, with stronger limbs; its body is covered with a coat of rough hair, commonly of a pale yellow colour; its aspect is sullen, and its habits, whence it derives its name, are cunning and insidious. At the same time it must be confessed that this dog is very attached to its master, displays most extraordinary intelligence, and is trained with great facility. As it possesses the advantage of a fine scent, it is often nefariously employed during the night-time in the capture of game; the more especially as it works silently, never giving tongue.”
WCL Martin in his The History of the Dog, Charles Knight, 1845.
“…one of the chief auxiliaries of the poacher is that clever rascal, the Lurcher, a compound of Sheepdog and Greyhound, with the brains of one and the speed of the other. Many imagine that the term Lurcher is of comparatively modern derivation. It is as old as Queen Anne, and no doubt was in use before that queen. ‘He who keeps Greyhounds, Lurchers, Setting-Dogs, to kill the game, being not qualified, forfeits £5, a Moiety to the Informer, the other to the poor.’ So runs a statute of Queen Anne. If it were not for his disreputable associations the Lurcher might very well become a favourite companion on account of his cleverness and teachability.” British Dogs by A. Croxton Smith, Collins, 1945.
For a thousand years in Britain, the humbler hunters have had their own hybrid sighthound, with pride in its performance rather than its purity of breeding, yet purpose-bred in the pursuit of hunting excellence just as shrewdly as any Foxhound or gundog. Forever associated with gypsies, poachers and country characters, the lowly lurcher has survived the campaigns of rural police forces, watchful gamekeepers and wary landowners, and to this day, still keeps the pot filled for many a working class household. Yet nowadays the lurcher fancier is classless; Barbours and bespoke boots feature as much at lurcher shows as moleskin and mufflers. The extraordinary rise in lurcher shows in the last half-century demonstrates the awareness of interest in these remarkable hunting dogs of mixed parentage. But it has also brought, at times, a tendency to breed a type that will win 'on the flags' rather than a 'chase, catch and kill' champion. The showier dog, often carrying the exaggerated angulation favoured in the official show rings, sadly appearing at the shows close to a big town.
But what is a lurcher? Writing in 1803, William Taplin considered the lurcher was a cross between “the shepherd’s dog and the greyhound, which from breeding in and in with the latter, has so refined upon the first change, that very little of the shepherd’s dog seems now to be retained in the stock; its patience, docility, and fidelity excepted. The lurcher, if thus bred, without any farther collateral crosses, is about three fourths the height and size of a full grown greyhound, and of a yellowish or sandy-red colour, rough and wiry-haired with ears naturally erect, but dropping a little at the point, of great speed, courage, sagacity and fidelity.” But if you look around at a lurcher show today it is soon apparent that the event would be better labelled 'any variety, sporting dog', for the height, weight, coat and colour are essentially anything but uniform. For a lurcher must be a cross-bred dog - fast enough to take all legal quarry, crafty enough not to get detected when used by the poacher, and able to withstand the cold and the wet, as well as the odd encounter with barbed wire. Purists might say it should really be a Collie cross Greyhound to be truly a lurcher; but Deerhound, Whippet, Saluki, Bedlington Terrier and Beardie blood have all been used over the years to instil dash, greater stamina or a more protective coat. Such an infusion however does need to be related both to quarry and country.
A Function not a Breed
The word ‘lurcher’ describes a function, not a breed of dog, just as the word ‘gundog’ describes the various breeds of dog working to the gun. Historically, the lurcher was the ‘stealer’ or ‘the thievishe dog’, the ‘look-dog’ of East Anglia, utilised by the humbler hunter, often hunting unlawfully. Like gundogs, lurchers vary in size, coat, head structure and precise function, with Deerhound, Smithfield and Bedlington lurchers being quite distinct from the Bull, Whippet and Bearded Collie types. Dogs portrayed in antique art, displaying the sighthound phenotype, are usually described as belonging to the nearest similar contemporary breed, rather than as lurchers, despite hunters of the past placing performance well ahead of purity of breeding. Today, any mongrel with the sighthound silhouette can attract the loosely-applied title of ‘lurcher’ but the automatic association with unlawful hunting no longer penalises the dogs. They are now part of what has been dubbed ‘country-chic’.
Penalties of Purity
The 21st century is exposing, for all dog fanciers to see, the penalties of breeding for purity of blood rather than performance. A dog that can do absolutely nothing can be more highly priced than one able to fill the pot. Appearance and human whim decides on breeds not their capability. Uninformed pure breeding and the ignoring of inbreeding co-efficients is threatening the lives and ease of life of so many purebred dogs. But lurchermen breed for performance still, and are proud of their dogs’ hunting skills. Honest breed historians know too that no breed of dog has actually been kept pure before the late19th century and the advent of dog shows. If you take the Greyhound for example, Lord Orford of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, to improve his Greyhounds introduced lurcher blood, then that of the Italian Greyhound, then the Foxhound and even that of the Bulldog in the quest for a better Greyhound. Lord Rivers did something similar, breeding from a half bull and half Greyhound bitch, whose progeny he recrossed for six or seven generations with his own Greyhounds. The Bulldog-blooded King Cob is behind every racing Greyhound of today. Sporting dog breeders, sighthound breeders especially, need an open mind if performance is rated above breed points.
It is common to find the less diligent researchers linking the 'tumbler', quaintly described by a number of 16th century writers, with the lurcher. Correspondents contributing to country sports magazines on the subject of lurchers often sign themselves 'Tumbler'. But the tumbler was the decoy dog, a very different animal. Dr Caius, for all his learning, knew little about dogs, and yet has over the years become much quoted as some form of authority. But even he mentioned the 'Thevishe Dog or Stealer, that is a poaching dog'. His lengthy and extraordinary description of the 'tumbler' is in effect an exaggerated account of the antics of the decoy dog. I know of no lurcher which hunts by 'dissembling friendship and pretending favour' as he describes.
From the ranks of dogs without a modern use, we have lost the decoy dog of England but the blood lives on in that of the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever and the Kooikerhondje of Holland. The first named luring the inquisitive ducks to within range of the hunters' rifles; the second enticing them along ever-narrowing little waterways until they are netted. We have lost the 'ginger 'coy dog' of East Anglia, referred to by such rural affairs writers as James Wentworth Day. But whereas the red decoy dog is perpetuated in distinct breeds, the lurcher was and ever shall be a nondescript dog. As 'Stonehenge' described them a century and a half ago: 'A poacher possessing such an animal seldom keeps him long, every keeper being on the look out, and putting a charge of shot into him on the first opportunity...the poacher does not often attempt to rear the dog which would suit him best, but contents himself with one which will not so much attract the notice of those who watch him.'
A farm labourer's dog is not so easily researched as that of the squire, but 'Stonehenge' has managed to convey the vital ordinariness, the essential anonymity and the fundamental disregard for type in what has long been a cross-bred purely functional hound, used for illegal hunting. This variation in type still manifests itself in today's lurcher shows, with classes for dogs over and under 26" at the withers, rough-haired or smooth-haired. Some breeders swear by the long-haired Saluki cross and others by Bedlington blood; some fanciers favour a stiff-coated dog and others the smooth-coated variety. A small minority still prize the Smithfield blood from the old drovers' dogs and there are usually the more bizarre crosses, such as Airedale cross Whippet or Bearded Collie crosss Dobermann Pinscher. The normal combination however is that of sighthound with herding dog, with more recently, Kelpie and Malinois blood utilised. Sir Walter Scott’s much-loved ‘Deerhound’, Maida, was actually a Deerhound-Pyrenean Mountain Dog cross, bred by Macdonell of Glengarry.
Judges at Kennel Club dog-shows have scoffed at the whole business of even attempting to judge such a wide variation of type in one lurcher ring, but, of course, that is exactly what they do when judging 'Best-in-Show' when all the winners in each breed then group competition come together to compete with one another. Lurcher show judges are not conformist anyway, having once featured such diverse characters as Moses Aaron-Smith, a gamekeeper from Derbyshire, born in a gypsy wagon of pure Romany stock, Ted Walsh, a retired Army Colonel and expert on coursing, and Martin Knoweldon, a commercial artist specializing in the depiction of sighthounds in full stride. The lurcher world, despite the establishment of the Association of Lurcher Clubs or ALC and the National Lurcher Racing Club, with regional branches, has never needed an infrastructure, a tight organisational body. But it would be good to see a modern non-conformist like Lord Orford, who over two hundred years ago, made use of Bulldog blood to increase the ‘heart’ and gameness of his Greyhounds. His line was perpetuated by Colonel Thornton, who bought all his stock. We perpetuate closed gene pools at our peril; we very much need a new and very non-conformist approach today.
Overseas, a number of breed-types act as lurchers: the Banjara Greyhound, the Cretan Hound, the Portuguese Podengo and the Ibizan Hound. But our lurchers can possess a wide range of skills, being not just fast running dogs, but able to use ground and air scent and track quarry as well as course it. The lurcher of Britain can be a combination of coursing Greyhound, retriever, tracker, pointer and watchdog. It would be more correct to describe the word lurcher itself as indicating a role, rather than a distinct type of dog. For it doesn't matter if a lurcher is 20 or 26" at the shoulder, rough-coated or smooth, black and tan or buckskin, prick-eared or drop-eared, provided it is biddable and can run. Uniformity of conformation matters little, but composition matters a great deal: good feet with strong toes, plenty of lung room, a flexible back, well-angled shoulders and immense power from the hindquarters are essential. Now that the type is not immediately under suspicion of illegal hunting the lurcher can afford to actually look like a hunting dog.
The most popular breed of dog in the United Kingdom is the Labrador Retriever, with nearly 35,000 registrations with the Kennel Club each year. But it is estimated that around 50,000 lurchers are newly born each year but registered with no body. There are around 100 lurcher shows a year, some featuring lure-chasing and high-jumping. But the lurcher has no breed standard and no breed clubs as such. The Association of Lurcher Clubs (ALC) was formed in 1995, with the idea of uniting the various small lurcher and coursing clubs in a joint purpose. It offers support to lurcher owners and helps fight for the restoration of hunting and coursing with lurchers. The ALC is a full voting member of the Council of Hunting Associations. In conjunction with the National Working Terrier Federation, the ALC aims to promote and support all kinds of hunting with lurchers and terriers, working to a code of good practice and with the permission and goodwill of landowners, farmers and the police. Such an organization deserves the support of lurchermen across the home countries; a united voice can achieve so much more than individual ones, which are so often used only when difficulties arise.
Value of the Hybrid
I strongly support the view expressed twenty five years ago by four veterinary scientists at the Ontario Veterinary College which read: "The advantages of hybrid vigour in a pure-bred line could be realised in a carefully controlled breeding program making use of outcrosses." The American veterinary surgeon Leon Whitney found fifty years ago better disease resistance in his crosses between two pedigree breeds. Also in North America, a study by Scott and Fuller (1964) indicated that the high puppy mortality characteristic of matings within a breed was greatly reduced when two different breeds were crossed. Another study by Rehfeld (1970) showed that the frequency of neonatal death in pure-bred Beagles increased with the degree of inbreeding. Most pedigree dog breeders resort to close line-breeding when they realise that such a programme is more likely to produce uniform animals of predictable merit. Then to their dismay, a few animals having recessive disorders begin appearing in the line-bred progeny. When the first abnormal puppy is born, the initial reaction is to deny that anything heritable is at fault in their line. It is regarded as a freak and the puppy disposed of. When further abnormal births occur, the cover up continues. Some sighthound breeds have coefficients of inbreeding that give cause for anxiety.
Conserving Healthy Breeds
The veterinary profession and geneticists know well that in-breeding is usually accompanied by an increase in defects: smaller litter sizes, increased post-natal mortality, general lessening of body size, lower reproductive performance, less robustness and behavioural problems. It is not inbreeding per se which brings about these defects but the presence of deleterious recessive genes that are being carried in the stock. Yet it is consistently argued by pedigree dog breeders, and regrettably even by some with veterinary qualifications, that our pedigree breeds of dog are just as healthy, virile and robust as any crossbred dog, mongrel or mutt. This is in spite of the weight of empirical evidence, especially from North America, over the last fifty years in particular. There are of course plenty of perfectly healthy pedigree dogs and far too many ill-kept mongrels and pitiful pi-dogs in the world. It is in the area of planned dog breeding where action can and must be taken to conserve the famous sighthound breeds handed down to us. Hybrids such as the lurcher show the way; seeking the purity of blood rather than a healthier longer-living dog is not a compassionate act.
"No dog in Britain ever drew more fire than the lurcher, not even the sheep-worrier. The gamekeeper hero of a novel by G Christopher Davies, Peter Penniless, lies in wait for some poachers who are about to gate-net a field, having stopped the meuses. As the poachers approach, accompanied by their lurcher dog, which has been trained to drive the hares directly towards the gates...Peter asks his employer what he should do if the dog scents them. The employer, elderly gamekeeper Quadling, replies, 'Shoot it. That's why I brought my gun. The men may be too quick for us, but I thought we might have a shot at the dog'."
Carson Ritchie, The British Dog, Robert Hale, 1981.
"The Lurcher is by no means the ugly brute he is sometimes described to be. True, they vary greatly, and the name more properly describes the peculiar duties of the dog, and his manner of performing them, than distinctiveness of type."
Hugh Dalziel, British Dogs, Upcott Gill, 1888.
"...to the mind of many, the most intelligent of all (i.e.sighthounds, DH) is the Lurcher, rather blown upon as to his reputation through his association with the Romany, but a creature of singular parts. He, I suppose, approximates to the hunting dog employed by our remote ancestors in that he can still be relied on to catch, kill and deliver one's dinner wherever game is to be found."
from The Book of the Dog by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, Nicholson & Watson, 1948.
“With respect to the lurcher…When taken to the warren, it steals along with the utmost caution, creeps upon the rabbits while feeding, and darts upon them in an instant; it waylays them as they return to their burrow, where it is ready to seize them, and then brings its booty to its master. Bewick knew a man who kept a pair of these dogs, and who confessed that at any time he could procure in an evening as many rabbits as he could carry home. This dog is equally expert at taking hares, partly by speed, but more by cunning wiles. It will drive partridges to the net with the utmost circumspection and address; and will even seize and pull down a fallow deer, and, leaving it disabled, return to its master and guide him to the scene of its exploits. The true lurcher is not so often to be seen as formerly; it is essentially a poacher’s dog, so that any person known to possess one becomes a suspected character.”
WCL Martin in his The History of the Dog, Charles Knight, 1845.
“RABBIT-COURSING:…THE DOGS are a cross of the terrier and greyhound, and are usually limited in weight, 25lbs. being that which is generally adopted. They are very fast for their size, but would of course be beaten by even an inferior thorough-bred greyhound; hence, the stipulation is generally made as to breed and weight. They have great power of turning and stopping themselves, which is required by the short running and quick turning of the rabbits, which spurt about more sharply than hares.”
JH Walsh in his Manual of British Rural Sports – The Pursuit of Wild Animals for Sport of 1856.
“Breeding ‘in-and-in’ – a practice which the deerhound has proved singularly capable of without immediate detriment – took place to an extent that brought back with multiplied force the old complaints of infertility, degeneracy, and ‘distemper’ of the most inveterate type. To this latter ailment some kennels were particularly subject (such as the Duke of Leeds’s, and afterwards, as we have been especially told, Lord Dalhousie’s at Invermark). All were notorious for it, although the fact seemed chiefly to come out in detached specimens that were obtained elsewhere, while the disease was almost unknown in forests where the cross-breeds prevailed.”
George Cupples in his Scotch Deer-hounds and Their Masters, Blackwood and Sons, 1894.
“As to breeding, we used an English greyhound bitch with courage, speed and a special hatred for a wolf, crossed with an English fox hound with all the qualities necessary, except the speed. We then picked the bitch with the most good qualities and crossed her with another fox hound whose ancestry is perfect. Here we get the dog we are using now and with which we have made the most satisfactory of catches…Where this dog has the advantage over the fox hound is in speed and the fact that it is ever on the watch ahead for the game.”
AR Harding in his Wolf and Coyote Trapping of 1909.